Summit of the Americas reveals misguided U.S. policies
Published: Saturday, May 5, 2012
Updated: Saturday, May 5, 2012 01:05
In mid-April, the 30 heads of state and government associated with the Organization of American States (OAS) met at the sixth Summit of the Americas. On the agenda of the Summit, held in Cartagena, Colombia, was to address the main theme of “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” Many media sources, however, concluded that little resulted from the Summit aside from further isolation from the United States vis-à-vis its dated policies on Cuba and the war on drugs. The Cuba issue, in particular, impeded progress for the second Summit in a row; Latin American nations demanded that the United States allow Cuba to attend the Summit. In 2009, the issue blocked agreement on a consensus statement. By failing to budge on the Cuban embargo or its policy on a botched drug war, the United States is falling behind its southern neighbors’ fresh thinking on these issues. The nation’s self-imposed detachment makes regional integration efforts like the OAS weak, as the United States slides out of touch with rapid changes in the rest of the western hemisphere.
The Summit did, however, bring global attention to issues like drug policy, which have threatened the social order from Mexico to Guatemala to Colombia. Drug war efforts in these countries and everywhere in between have failed to stop drug consumption, production and trade. But, regarding regional security and drug trafficking, the heads of state have begun discussing alternatives to combating drug cartels.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that the Summit demonstrated “the transformation of the regional and global dialogue around drug policy.” Despite President Obama’s statement that legalization is “not the answer,” the mere fact that discussion occurred about whether U.S. drug policies result in more harm than good is a breakthrough. Acknowledging potential flaws in American policy represents a considerable difference from earlier U.S. presidents’ intransigence. President Obama even stayed in Cartagena a full three days, longer than any other U.S. president has stayed during a Summit of the Americas.
Nadelmann pointed out an irony in this debate. Evo Morales, the leftist president of Bolivia, used simple economics to demonstrate how the United States’ voracious demand for drugs lies at the heart of the problem. Nadelmann said Morales is essentially “sounding like Milton Friedman” and asking the United States, “How can you expect us to reduce the supply where there is a demand?” It is time that the United States’ decades-old strict, militarized “war on drugs” policy cleans house and reshapes itself to benefit, rather than debilitate, violence-stricken societies. Some countries accept decriminalization, legalization or other forms of regulation, rather than a violence-on-violence tactic. Many Latin American nations are ready to do so, and the United States—behind billion dollar hard-line efforts in the region to catch drug cartels—must opt to work multilaterally with its neighbors on up-to-date plans that make communities secure.
A second issue edging its way to the forefront is Cuba. The United States continues to block Cuba’s participation in the OAS Summits. U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba proved reasonable in 1962 when the Soviet Union installed middle-range missiles in Cuba, but the five-decade-old policy has, obviously, not brought U.S.-desired changes to Cuba. In 1975, an OAS resolution permitted countries to establish diplomatic relations with the island nation and, since then, Latin American countries have restored normal relations with Cuba. The U.S. policy has become so visibly outdated and political that Obama’s excuse that Cuba is still not democratic merely aggravates Latin American countries further, even prompting occasional eye-rolling, reports Reuters.
Cuba will not become a democracy overnight, as the United States seems to expect. Yet change is coming slowly to Cuba, for instance, in the form of legalization of the sale of private property in 2011. The U.S. embargo clearly failed and arguably even strengthened the Castro regime. Given the importance of the Florida electorate in the U.S. 2012 presidential election, however, Obama will not (yet) own up to that. The issue will continue to hinder advancement and place into question the effectiveness of the OAS. More countries will boycott the OAS Summits, as Ecuador’s and Nicaragua’s presidents did this year, and countries will bypass the OAS to form bilateral agreements.
Just after the Sixth Summit, Presidents Obama and Santos of Colombia met on the OAS’s margins to form their own partnership on security cooperation. The new free trade agreement between both countries goes into effect in May. The success of these bilateral efforts makes the OAS appear like an organization that exists only on paper, but U.S. intransigence is a major reason that concern has emerged. Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at NYU, suggests that Latin Americans will create ways for progress that exclude the United States. In stark contrast to the 1960s and 70s when the OAS served U.S. interests, the Summit has become “a venue in which [Latin Americans] come together in order to criticize Washington, quite effectively,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.
International attention on the United States’ inflexibility on crucial issues will hopefully make Washington prioritize relations with Latin America and acknowledge disastrous policies. Whether or not such attention comes from the U.S. secret service agent scandal or from an authentic global concern, the United States must arrive to the seventh Summit in 2015 with concrete ideas on how to cooperate with Latin American nations. Granting Cuba entrance will be imperative for conversations on drugs and security.